Friday, 3 June 2016

Die tote Stadt – Staatstheater Kassel – 1 June 2016

Marietta (Celine Byrne), Paul (Charles Workman) and Marie (Eva-Marie Sommersberg)
Photos: N. Klinger

Paul – Charles Workman
Marietta – Celine Byrne
Marie – Eva-Marie Sommersberg
Frank – Marian Pop
Brigitta – Marta Herman
Fritz – Hansung Yoo
Juliette – Lin Lin Fan
Lucienne – Maren Engelhardt
Victorin – Paulo Paulillo
Graf Albert – Johannes An

Staatsorchester Kassel
Opera Chorus & Cantamus Choir of Staatstheater Kassel

Conductor – Patrik Ringborg
Director – Markus Dietz
Sets – Mayke Hegger
Costumes – Henrike Bromber
Video – Lillian Stillwell
Lighting – Albert Geisel

Brigitta (Marta Herman) and Frank (Marian Pop) at the start of Act I

Although Korngold’s Die tote Stadt offers more scope for the director’s imagination than many an opera, with its meshing of real and imaginary worlds and its convoluted psychology, it is perhaps unsurprising that as the work becomes more of a repertoire piece the ideas presented on stage are becoming less original. This, if my memory is correct, is the eighth staging I’ve seen in a little over two decades, and while Markus Dietz’s interpretation is coherent and well presented, it is also unmistakeably reflective of previous efforts. Mayke Hegger’s set thrusts the action into the auditorium by encompassing the full perimeter of the orchestra pit, thanks to the theatre’s generously deep dividing line between instrumentalists and audience. This box-like forestage is Paul’s space, with his ‘shrine of memories’ a shelving unit providing the back wall that eventually opens up on a receding vista of his imagination. The false proscenium idea here, dividing real from dreamt worlds, was also used by Jakob Peters-Messer in Magdeburg in the winter, while the updating of Paul’s memorabilia of his dead wife Maria to include video footage was exploited by Anselm Weber in Frankfurt (the Cologne staging of 15 years ago or so went further and made the pertinent connection with Hitchcockian film, not least as Vertigo shares source material and some of the plot).

A scenic device that recalls Willy Decker’s much-travelled production is the use of the Doppelgänger to delineate the two ‘realities’. Here the ‘dead’ Marie is a constant presence in the form of a silent dancer, a seeming ghost of Paul’s dead wife, who is as bereft with her loss as he is with his. Her actions seem to mirror and at times contradict those of Marietta, the ‘real-world’ lookalike with whom Paul becomes obsessed. Also made out to be a double, seemingly, is Frank, since he is dressed just like Paul in white shirt and black trousers – is he perhaps made out to be Paul’s rational side? Paul’s attempt to kill Frank off in their Act II struggle is coupled with his need to kill Marie/Marietta again, as if by only doing the deed himself can he finally come to terms with his loss. Intriguingly, there’s a hint of erotic tanglement between Paul and Brigitte, as they kiss when she leaves him for the convent in Act II, and at the very end, Frank – and now we really do have to believe he is the rational Paul – addresses his invitation to leave Bruges, the ‘dead city’, to her, and is taken aback when Paul replies: Frank happily slips away with Brigitte to a new life, as Paul walks off into the darkness of the rear stage, his bereavement cast into oblivion. Weber in Frankfurt explored the anti-clerical element in contributing to Bruges’s ‘deadliness’, but Dietz explores more obvious religious connotations, making the religious procession in Act III specifically a Good Friday one and thence a cue to showing a bloodied Marie crucified as part of her continuing death process. Extensive use is made of the stage risers to achieve all the comings and goings of chorus and characters, and the visual flow is as seemless as a series of cinematic cross-fades.

Charles Workman brought a Heldentenor’s bright, ringing tone to the exhausting role of Paul. A couple of the high notes slipped from his grasp, but he almost always managed get a settling vibrato going in even some of the most trying of musical phrases, and he physically lived the role from beginning to end, despite the indignity of having to sing, for a fair chunk of the evening, wearing nothing but his underpants. Celine Byrne’s crisp diction was just one of the delights of her performance as Marietta, and it was coupled with plenty of sinuous tone and a stage presence that confidently suggested this was a character who wasn’t going to be messed with. As her Doppelgänger, Eva-Maria Sommersberg put just as much conviction into her silent role. The rest of the cast, drawn from the company’s ensemble, acquitted itself with equal commitment, but special commendation must go to the Fritz of Hansung Yoo, whose suave, beautifully paced Pierrot’s Lied was a highlight of the performance. Choruses, especially the professional-sounding children of Cantamus, were excellent and the Kassel orchestra played its heart out, Patrik Ringborg revealing extensive musical preparation in the way so much inner detail emerged while making the score as a whole soar, glide and ensnare as ever.

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